IPOH, Jan 24 -- Initially conceived by a band of citizens concerned about the conservation of Ipoh’s historical sites, the Perak Heritage Society (PHS) now promotes public awareness and preservation of the entire state’s  cultural, social and environmental heritage.

One of their leading lights, PHS founding member and former president Law Siak Hong is relentless about the cause; he leads regular heritage walks for the public around Old Ipoh as well as other parts of Perak.

When did you get started in heritage work?

My exposure to heritage was through architecture in Sydney. In the early 70s, I was spending weekends in heritage trust homes and having tea in the gardens; it was one of the cheapest things to do back then.

I would say heritage came about after I met heritage advocate Khoo Salma Nasution (President of the Penang Heritage Trust) and her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis. They’ve got a publishing house in Penang called Areca Books.

Shortly after I returned to Ipoh, they contacted me as they were doing a heritage map in Ipoh. They had done one for Taiping and it was successful, so the Perak state government commissioned them to do one for Ipoh.

However, neither spoke Cantonese. So I helped them with that. I’m not a historian and not much of a researcher, but I became a sort of historian because of my subsequent heritage work.

This was before the PHS was formed. It was only about 2002 that I got in touch with a group of like-minded people in Ipoh. We got together, applied and officially became a registered body by August 2003.

How did your heritage walks come about?

In 2003, PHS organised an exhibition of newspaper clippings about Ipoh’s heritage. That was when I decided I was finally game to conduct a heritage walk. So we signed up people during the exhibition.

My first walk was in March 2003; I was so nervous! After that, I became more comforable conducting walks and from then on there was no looking back. Soon there were others also conducting walks.

I stood out because I spoke better English and was more communicative. I was willing to learn and do my own research by digging into books. You’ve got to create a story by linking things up; otherwise all you have is a lot of information from different sources but no real story.

How has Ipoh changed today, especially for visitors?

There’s a boom of many new hotels in Ipoh, which means the hoteliers expect Ipoh is going to need them. Maybe three years ago, more people started to come in during the weekends for the food. They just want a small hotel to sleep in, something clean; they are not in the room much.

What is there to do in the town? What do they do the next time they come up?

It can’t be the same as the previous weekend. If they are serious about heritage, Ipoh is only the starting point. I’d recommend coming up to Ipoh one weekend for the food, another for the heritage sights and sites, and branch out to other smaller towns in Perak after that.

As Ipoh’s appeal as a heritage destination grows, more business owners will capitalise on it. What is PHS’s reaction to this?

We are quite concerned about that because we are not consultants to owners nor are we architects. Although I’m architecturally trained, I’m not a practising architect.

I’m okay with people turning heritage buildings into modern buildings. It’s their right. But the question is whether these buildings even have historical value to begin with, and how do these owners know?

How do you know until you do the research? But most owners do not want to spend the money to do the research and no one will do the research for you for free. You can get the information if it happens to be available, but we really don’t have the capacity like what Penang did 20 years ago and do an inventory of Penang’s old shophouses, heritage buildings, etc.

The owners have to understand what they are doing and what would actually qualify them to say that they are protecting heritage. Not pulling down the building is a great help, obviously, or sanitising it. That sort of recreating their own version of “heritage” without respect for the actual local heritage is a joke.

Why are you so passionate about this cause?

What I tell people is that heritage does not equal history, but heritage includes history. I always call heritage the pretty cousin of history. When you think about history, you think about books and boring, clever words –- but when you talk about heritage, you get an almost immediate physical presence and a visual impact.

It’s very emotive. It’s still alive. But history isn’t just the past, history is living now. Everything we do today builds up into the heritage of tomorrow. What we leave now often reflects what we did in the past. It’s history in the making.

To learn more about the Ipoh heritage walks, contact Law Siak Hong (017-506-1875/[email protected]) or visit Perak Heritage Society (http://perakheritage.wordpress.com).

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 23, 2014.